The first marquee event of the XVIIth Commonwealth Games gets under way today on the City of Manchester Stadium track as two young Englishmen, Dwain Chambers and Mark Lewis-Francis, play out a 100 metres rivalry that is growing in intensity.
Two victories this season over the world and Olympic champion Maurice Greene have established Chambers as the highest-profile British sprinter of the moment, but at 19, five years his junior, Lewis-Francis is demonstrating an irrepressible talent that is drawing him ever closer to the No 1 domestic position.
Since Chambers chose not to contest the 100m at the European Championship trials earlier this month, the rivalry – with fervid prompting from sections of the media – has begun to resemble something more readily encountered in the world of boxing. "Running scared'' was Lewis-Francis' assessment of the elder runner's tactics in Birmingham. "The more he talks the more he'll wind me up and he'll suffer," Chambers responded this week. "Trust me, don't talk the talk, son, unless you can walk the walk."
Talent plus acrimony! Hold the back page – it's Seb and Steve all over again.
While the hype has succeeded in raising the event in the consciousness of a British public still replete with memories of World Cup and Open Championship, it is not something that impresses Chambers' coach, Mike McFarlane
"It's been built up in the last couple of weeks,'' said the man who has a Commonwealth medal of the colour Chambers has in mind to earn this weekend following his dead heat with Allan Wells in the 1978 200m. "Dwain is an adult and he'll say what he wants, but really we are not interested in it. I don't want to see that kind of Seb Coe/Steve Ovett thing. It's not fair to Dwain or Mark. These are two guys who have put themselves right up there, but they still speak together. They need to do what they are doing for British sprinting, not for the British press."
If the acrimony remains debatable, however, the talent is unquestionable. Chambers, who followed Linford Christie into sub-10 second territory three years ago, has won all seven of his meetings with the former world junior champion since 2000, but the gap between them has narrowed to the point where Chambers finished 0.02sec ahead in their last race at Sheffield.
The manner of Chambers' departure from the European trials two weeks ago – limping away with a calf cramp after finishing last in the 200m final – was hardly ideal preparation for a major championship in which, for the first time in his career, he finds himself regarded as favourite. It is a measure of the progress he has made this year that that assessment can be made despite a field that contains Lewis-Francis, England's third man and double European 60m champion Jason Gardener, the quadruple Olympic silver-medallist Frankie Fredericks, the Olympic bronze medallist Obadele Thompson, of Barbados, Kim Collins, of St Kitts and Ghana's Abdul Aziz Zakari.
McFarlane, though, believes his charge is ready for the fray. "Dwain took only a couple of days to get over his problem at Birmingham,'' he said. "There was no muscle damage and he has trained well all week. Mark is a very, very good talent, and you can't disregard runners like Jason or Frankie. But Dwain is mentally as ready as I've ever seen him. Birmingham is forgotten now. This is business."
Chambers has certainly given every evidence of confidence. "I am totally convinced that I will win, whoever I am up against,'' he said. Lewis-Francis is in similarly bullish mood. "I'm here to win,'' he said yesterday. "The only thing in my head is gold. I'm not saying there is nothing to worry about – far from it. This is a tough competition with lots of good sprinters.''
The presence of Fredericks, who has recorded times of 9.85sec and 9.94 this season, albeit at altitude and, in the former case, with wind assistance, will ensure that. The 34-year-old from Namibia, who has recovered from a major Achilles tendon problem, has entered the 100m and 200m. And although it is in the longer event that he is best known, having chased Michael Johnson home at the 1996 Olympics in 20.68sec, he cannot be discounted from an event in which he finished runner-up to Christie at the 1992 Olympics and to Donovan Bailey in Atlanta four years later.
Thompson, who finished a place ahead of Chambers in Sydney, is also a dangerous presence with proven championship ability over both 100 and 200m.
Four years ago in Kuala Lumpur the Commonwealth 100m provided an early demonstration that, for all the weaknesses of a competition founded on out-moded notions of Empire, these Games can still bring together top-quality fields and produce world-class performances as Ato Boldon – unable to defend his title here because of disappointing form – won in 9.88sec ahead of Fredericks in 9.96 and Thompson in 10.00.
If the two men currently leading the charge among English sprinters can safely negotiate two rounds of heats today before living up to their potential in tomorrow's final on a track that has already proved itself to be fast – and if the sun shines as the weather forecasters predict, then the Manchester Games of 2002 will have its own race to celebrate.
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